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The Fighting Edge
by William MacLeod Raine
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THE FIGHTING EDGE

By WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE

Author of "Man-Size," "Gunsight Pass," "Tangled Trails," Etc.

Boston and New York HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1922

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COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED The Riverside Press CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.

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TO MY MOTHER

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CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE I. Pete's Girl 1 II. "A Spunky Li'l' Devil" 7 III. Pals 12 IV. Clipped Wings 17 V. June asks Questions 25 VI. "Don't You Touch Him!" 33 VII. An Elopement 41 VIII. Blister Gives Advice 50 IX. The White Feather 58 X. In the Image of God 68 XI. June Prays 76 XII. Mollie Takes Charge 86 XIII. Bear Cat Asks Questions 93 XIV. Houck Takes a Ride 100 XV. A Scandal Scotched 106 XVI. Blister as Deus ex Machina 110 XVII. The Back of a Bronc 117 XVIII. The First Day 123 XIX. Dud Qualifies as Court Jester 127 XX. "The Bigger the Hat the Smaller the Herd" 135 XXI. June Discovers a New World 141 XXII. An Alternative Proposed and Declined 145 XXIII. Bob Crawls his Hump Sudden 150 XXIV. In the Saddle 158 XXV. The Rio Blanco puts in a Claim 162 XXVI. Cutting Sign 171 XXVII. Partners in Peril 179 XXVIII. June is Glad 189 XXIX. "Injuns" 194 XXX. A Recruit Joins the Rangers 200 XXXI. "Don't you like me any more?" 207 XXXII. A Cup of Cold Water 214 XXXIII. "Keep A-Comin', Red Haid" 222 XXXIV. An Obstinate Man stands Pat 230 XXXV. Three in a Pit 237 XXXVI. A Hero is Embarrassed 242 XXXVII. A Responsible Citizen 249 XXXVIII. Bear Cat Asleep 253 XXXIX. Bear Cat Awake 258 XL. Big-Game Hunters at Work 262 XLI. In a Lady's Chamber 266 XLII. A Walk in the Park 270 XLIII. Not even Powder-burnt 278 XLIV. Bob holds his Red Haid high 284 XLV. The Outlaw gets a Bad Break 290 XLVI. The End of a Crooked Trail 297 XLVII. The Kingdom of Joy 301

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THE FIGHTING EDGE

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THE FIGHTING EDGE

CHAPTER I

PETE'S GIRL

She stood in the doorway, a patched and ragged Cinderella of the desert. Upon her slim, ill-poised figure the descending sun slanted a shaft of glory. It caught in a spotlight the cheap, dingy gown, the coarse stockings through the holes of which white flesh peeped, the heavy, broken brogans that disfigured the feet. It beat upon a small head with a mass of black, wild-flying hair, on red lips curved with discontent, into dark eyes passionate and resentful at what fate had made of her young life. A silent, sullen lass, one might have guessed, and the judgment would have been true as most first impressions.

The girl watched her father drive half a dozen dogies into the mountain corral perched precariously on the hillside. Soon now it would be dusk. She went back into the cabin and began to prepare supper.

In the rickety stove she made a fire of cottonwood. There was a business-like efficiency in the way she peeled potatoes, prepared the venison for the frying-pan, and mixed the biscuit dough.

June Tolliver and her father lived alone on Piceance[1] Creek. Their nearest neighbor was a trapper on Eighteen-Mile Hill. From one month's end to another she did not see a woman. The still repression in the girl's face was due not wholly to loneliness. She lived on the edge of a secret she intuitively felt was shameful. It colored her thoughts and feelings, set her apart from the rest of the world. Her physical reactions were dominated by it. Yet what this secret was she could only guess at.

A knock sounded on the door.

June brushed back a rebellious lock of hair from her eyes with the wrist above a flour-whitened hand. "Come in."

A big dark man stood on the threshold. His glance swept the girl, searched the room, and came back to her.

"Pete Tolliver live here?"

"Yes. He's lookin' after the stock. Be in soon, likely."

The man closed the door. June dragged a chair from a corner and returned to her cooking.

From his seat the man watched her. His regard was disturbing. It had a quality of insistence. His eyes were cold yet devouring. They were possessive, not clear but opaque. They did not look at her as other eyes did. She felt the blood burning in her cheeks.

Presently, as she passed from the table to the stove to look at the sputtering venison, she flashed a resentful glance at him. It did not touch his effrontery.

"You Pete's girl?" he asked.

"Yes."

"You've grown. Knew you when you was learnin' to crawl."

"In Brown's Park?" The words were out before she could stop them.

"You done said it." He smiled, not pleasantly, she thought. "I'm a real old friend of yore father."

Curiosity touched with apprehension began to stir in her. For those early years she had only memory to rely upon. Tolliver never referred to them. On that subject the barriers were up between the two. Fugitive flashes of that first home came back to June. She remembered a sweet, dark-eyed woman nuzzling her little body with kisses after the bath, an hour when that mother wept as though her heart would break and she had put little baby arms in tight embrace round her neck by way of comfort. That dear woman was not in any of the later pictures. A pile of stones on a hillside in Brown's Park marked the grave.

Between the day of 'Lindy Tolliver's outburst of grief and the child's next recollection was a gap. The setting of the succeeding memories was a frame house on a dusty road at the edge of a frontier town. In front of it jolted big freight wagons, three of them fastened together and drawn by a double row of oxen so long she could not count them. The place was Rawlins, Wyoming, and it was an outfitting point for a back country in Colorado hundreds of miles from the railroad. The chief figure in June's horizon was a stern-eyed, angular aunt who took the place of both father and mother and did her duty implacably. The two lived together forever, it seemed to the child.

June wakened one night from the light of a lamp in her aunt's hand. A man was standing beside her. He was gaunt and pallid, in his eyes a look of hunger that reminded her of a hunted coyote. When he took her tightly in his arms she began to cry. He had murmured, "My li'l' baby, don't you be scared of yore paw." As mysteriously as he had come to life, so Pete Tolliver disappeared again.

Afterward there was a journey with a freight outfit which lasted days and days. June was in charge of a bullwhacker. All she remembered about him was that he had been kind to her and had expended a crackling vocabulary on his oxen. The end of the trek brought her to Piceance Creek and a father now heavily bearded and with long, unkempt hair. They had lived here ever since.

Did this big man by the window belong to her father's covered past? Was there menace in his coming? Vaguely June felt that there was.

The door opened and Tolliver stepped in. He was rather under middle-size, dressed in down-at-the-heel boots, butternut jeans, cotton shirt, and dusty, ragged slouch hat. The grizzled beard hid the weak mouth, but the skim-milk eyes, the expression of the small-featured face, betrayed the man's lack of force. You may meet ten thousand like him west of the Mississippi. He lives in every village, up every creek, in every valley, and always he is the cat's-paw of stronger men who use him for good or ill to serve their ends.

The nester stopped in his tracks. It was impossible for June to miss the dismay that found outlet in the fallen jaw and startled eyes.

In the stranger's grin was triumphant malice. "You sure look glad to see me, Pete, and us such old friends too. Le's see, I ain't seen you since—since—" He stopped, as though his memory were at fault, but June sensed the hint of a threat in the uncompleted sentence.

Reluctantly Tolliver took the offered hand. His consternation seemed to have stricken him dumb.

"Ain't you going to introduce yore old pal to the girl?" the big man asked.

Not willingly, the rancher found the necessary words. "June, meet Mr. Houck."

June was putting the biscuits in the oven. She nodded an acknowledgment of the introduction. Back of the resentful eyes the girl's brain was busy.

"Old side pardners, ain't we, Pete?" Houck was jeering at him almost openly.

The older man mumbled what might be taken for an assent.

"Branded a heap of cattle, you 'n' me. Eh, Pete?" The stranger settled deeper in the chair. "Jake Houck an' you could talk over old times all night. We was frolicsome colts."

Tolliver felt his hand forced. "Put off yore hat and wash up, Jake. You'll stay to-night, o' course."

"Don't mind if I do. I'm headed for Glenwood. Reckon I'd better put the horse up first."

The two men left the cabin. When they returned half an hour later, the supper was on the table. June sat on the side nearest the stove and supplied the needs of the men. Coffee, hot biscuits, more venison, a second dish of gravy: no trained waiter could have anticipated their wants any better. If she was a bit sulky, she had reason for it. Houck's gaze followed her like a searchlight. It noted the dark good looks of her tousled head, the slimness of the figure which moved so awkwardly, a certain flash of spirit in the undisciplined young face.

"How old's yore girl?" the man asked his host.

Tolliver hesitated, trying to remember. "How old are you, June?"

"Going on sixteen," she answered, eyes smouldering angrily.

This man's cool, impudent appraisal of her was hateful, she felt.

He laughed at her manner, easily, insolently, for he was of the type that finds pleasure in the umbrage of women annoyed by his effrontery. Of the three the guest was the only one quite at his ease. Tolliver's ingratiating jokes and the heartiness of his voice rang false. He was troubled, uncertain how to face the situation that had arisen.

His daughter reflected this constraint. Why did her father fear this big dominating fellow? What was the relation between them? Why did his very presence bring with it a message of alarm?

She left them before the stove as soon as the dishes were washed, retiring to the bedroom at the other end of the log cabin. Far into the night she heard them talking, in low voices that made an indistinct murmur. To the sound of them she fell asleep.

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[1] Pronounced Pee-ance.



CHAPTER II

"A SPUNKY LI'L' DEVIL"

Houck rode away next morning after breakfast, but not before he had made a promise June construed as a threat.

"Be back soon, girl."

Her eyes were on the corral, from which her father was driving the dogies. "What's it to me?" she said with sullen resentment.

"More'n you think. I've took a fancy to you. When I come back I'll talk business."

The girl's eyes did not turn toward him, but the color flooded the dark cheeks. "With Father maybe. Not with me. You've got no business to talk over with me."

"Think so? Different here. Take a good look at me, June Tolliver."

"What for?" Her glance traveled over him disdainfully to the hound puppy chasing its tail. She felt a strange excitement drumming in her veins. "I've seen folks a heap better worth lookin' at."

"Because I'm tellin' you to." His big hand caught her chin and swung it back. "Because I'm figurin' on marryin' you right soon."

Her dark eyes blazed. They looked at him straight enough now. "Take yore hand off'n me. D'you hear?"

He laughed, slowly, delightedly. "You're a spunky li'l' devil. Suits me fine. Jake Houck never did like jog-trotters in harness."

"Lemme go," she ordered, and a small brown fist clenched.

"Not now, nor ever. You're due to wear the Houck brand, girl."

She struck, hard, with all the strength of her lithe and supple body. Above his cheek-bone a red streak leaped out where the sharp knuckles had crushed the flesh.

A second time he laughed, harshly. Her chin was still clamped in a vice-like grip that hurt. "I get a kiss for that, you vixen." With a sweeping gesture he imprisoned both of the girl's arms and drew the slim body to him. He kissed her, full on the lips, not once but half a dozen times, while she fought like a fury without the least avail.

Presently the man released her hands and chin.

"Hit me again if you like, and I'll c'lect my pay prompt," he jeered.

She was in a passionate flame of impotent anger. He had insulted her, trampled down the pride of her untamed youth, brushed away the bloom of her maiden modesty. And there was nothing she could do to make him pay. He was too insensitive to be reached by words, no matter how she pelted them at him.

A sob welled up from her heart. She turned and ran into the house.

Houck grinned, swung to the saddle, and rode up the valley. June would hate him good and plenty, he thought. That was all right. He had her in the hollow of his hand. All her thoughts would be full of him. After she quit struggling to escape she would come snuggling up to him with a girl's shy blandishments. It was his boast that he knew all about women and their ways.

June was not given to tears. There was in her the stark pioneer blood that wrested the West in two generations from unfriendly nature. But the young virgin soul had been outraged. She lay on the bed of her room, face down, the nails of her fingers biting into the palms of the hands, a lump in the full brown throat choking her.

She was a wild, free thing of the hills, undisciplined by life. Back of June's anger and offended pride lurked dread, as yet indefinite and formless. Who was this stranger who had swaggered into her life and announced himself its lord and master? She would show him his place, would teach him how ridiculous his pretensions were. But even as she clenched her teeth on that promise there rose before her a picture of the fellow's straddling stride, of the fleering face with its intrepid eyes and jutting, square-cut jaw. He was stronger than she. No scruples would hold him back from the possession of his desires. She knew she would fight savagely, but a chill premonition of failure drenched the girl's heart.

Later, she went out to the stable where Tolliver was riveting a broken tug. It was characteristic of the man that all his tools, harness, and machinery were worn out or fractured. He never brought a plough in out of the winter storms or mended a leak in the roof until the need was insistent. Yet he was not lazy. He merely did not know how to order affairs with any system.

"Who is that man?" June demanded.

He looked up, mildly surprised and disturbed at the imperative in the girl's voice. "Why, didn't I tell you, honey—Jake Houck?"

"I don't want to know his name. I want to know who he is—all about him."

Tolliver drove home a rivet before he answered. "Jake's a cowman." His voice was apologetic. "I seen you didn't like him. He's biggity, Jake is."

"He's the most hateful man I ever saw," she burst out.

Pete lifted thin, straw-colored eyebrows in questioning, but June had no intention of telling what had taken place. She would fight her own battles.

"Well, he's a sure enough toughfoot," admitted the rancher.

"When did you know him?"

"We was ridin' together, a right long time ago."

"Where?"

"Up around Rawlins—thataway."

"He said he knew you in Brown's Park."

The man flashed a quick, uncertain look at his daughter. It appeared to ask how much Houck had told. "I might 'a' knowed him there too. Come to think of it, I did. Punchers drift around a heap. Say, how about dinner? You got it started? I'm gettin' powerful hungry."

June knew the subject was closed. She might have pushed deeper into her father's reticence, but some instinct shrank from what she might uncover. There could be only pain in learning the secret he so carefully hid.

There had been no discussion of it between them, nor had it been necessary to have any. It was tacitly understood that they would have little traffic with their neighbors, that only at rare intervals would Pete drive to Meeker, Glenwood Springs, or Bear Cat to dispose of furs he had trapped and to buy supplies. The girl's thoughts and emotions were the product largely of this isolation. She brooded over the mystery of her father's past till it became an obsession in her life. To be brought into close contact with dishonor makes one either unduly sensitive or callously indifferent. Upon June it had the former effect.

The sense of inferiority was branded upon her. She had seen girls giggling at the shapeless sacks she had stitched together for clothes with which to dress herself. She was uncouth, awkward, a thin black thing ugly as sin. It had never dawned on her that she possessed rare potentialities of beauty, that there was coming a time when she would bloom gloriously as a cactus in a sand waste.

After dinner June went down to the creek and followed a path along its edge. She started up a buck lying in the grass and watched it go crashing through the brush. It was a big-game country. The settlers lived largely on venison during the fall and winter. She had killed dozens of blacktail, an elk or two, and more than once a bear. With a rifle she was a crack shot.

But to-day she was not hunting. She moved steadily along the winding creek till she came to a bend in its course. Beyond this a fishing-rod lay in the path. On a flat rock near it a boy was stretched, face up, looking into the blue, unflecked sky.



CHAPTER III

PALS

He was a red-headed, stringy boy between eighteen and nineteen years old. His hands were laced back of the head, but he waggled a foot by way of greeting.

"'Lo, June," he called.

"What you doin'?" she demanded.

"Oh, jes' watchin' the grass grow."

She sat down beside him, drawing up her feet beneath the skirt and gathering the knees between laced fingers. Moodily, she looked down at the water swirling round the rocks.

Bob Dillon said nothing. He had a capacity for silence that was not uncompanionable. They could sit by the hour, these two, quite content, without exchanging a dozen sentences. The odd thing about it was that they were not old friends. Three weeks ago they had met for the first time. He was flunkeying for a telephone outfit building a line to Bear Cat.

"A man stayed up to the house last night," she said at last.

He leaned his head on a hand, turning toward her. The light blue eyes in the freckled face rested on those of the girl.

Presently she added, with a flare of surging anger, "I hate him."

"Why?"

The blood burned beneath the tan of the brown cheeks. "'Cause."

"Shucks! That don't do any good. It don't buy you anything."

She swung upon him abruptly. "Don't you hate the men at the camp when they knock you around?"

"What'd be the use? I duck outa the way next time."

Two savage little demons glared at him out of her dark eyes. "Ain't you got any sand in yore craw, Bob Dillon? Do you aim to let folks run on you all yore life? I'd fight 'em if 't was the last thing I ever did."

"Different here. I'd get my block knocked off about twice a week. You don't see me in any scraps where I ain't got a look-in. I'd rather let 'em boot me a few," he said philosophically.

She frowned at him, in a kind of puzzled wonderment. "You're right queer. If I was a man—"

The sentence died out. She was not a man. The limitations of sex encompassed her. In Jake Houck's arms she had been no more than an infant. He would crush her resistance—no matter whether it was physical or mental—and fling out at her the cruel jeering laughter of one who could win without even exerting his strength. She would never marry him—never, never in the world. But—

A chill dread drenched her heart.

Young Dillon was sensitive to impressions. His eyes, fixed on the girl's face, read something of her fears.

"This man—who is he?" he asked.

"Jake Houck. I never saw him till last night. My father knew him when—when he was young."

"What's the matter with this Houck? Why don't you like him?"

"If you'd see him—how he looks at me." She flashed to anger. "As if I was something he owned and meant to tame."

"Oh, well, you know the old sayin', a cat may look at a king. He can't harm you."

"Can't he? How do you know he can't?" she challenged.

"How can he, come to that?"

"I don't say he can." Looked at in cold blood, through the eyes of another, the near-panic that had seized her a few hours earlier appeared ridiculous. "But I don't have to like him, do I? He acted—hateful—if you want to know."

"How d'you mean—hateful?"

A wave of color swept through her cheeks to the brown throat. How could she tell him that there was something in the man's look that had disrobed her, something in his ribald laugh that had made her feel unclean? Or that the fellow had brushed aside the pride and dignity that fenced her and ravished kisses from her lips while he mocked? She could not have put her feeling into words if she had tried, and she had no intention of trying.

"Mean," she said. "A low-down, mean bully."

The freckled boy watched her with a curious interest. She made no more sex appeal to him than he did to her, and that was none at all. The first thing that had moved him in the child was the friendlessness back of her spitfire offense. She knew no women, no other girls. The conditions of life kept her aloof from the ones she met casually once or twice a year. She suspected their laughter, their whispers about the wild girl on Piceance Creek. The pride with which she ignored them was stimulated by her sense of inferiority. June had read books. She felt the clothes she made were hideous, the conditions of her existence squalid; and back of these externals was the shame she knew because they must hide themselves from the world on account of the secret.

Bob did not know all that, but he guessed some of it. He had not gone very far in experience himself, but he suspected that this wild creature of the hills was likely to have a turbulent and perhaps tragic time of it. She was very much a child of impulse. Thirstily she had drunk in all he could tell her of the world beyond the hills that hemmed them in. He had known her frank, grateful, dreamy, shy, defiant, and once, for no apparent reason, a flaming little fury who had rushed to eager repentance when she discovered no offense was meant. He had seen her face bubbling with mirth at the antics of a chipmunk, had looked into the dark eyes when they were like hill fires blazing through mist because of the sunset light in the crotch of the range.

"I reckon Mr. Tolliver won't let this Houck bully you none," the boy said.

"I ain't scared of him," she answered.

But June knew there would be small comfort for her in the thought of her father's protection. She divined intuitively that he would be a liability rather than an asset in any conflict that might arise between her and Jake Houck.

"If there was anything I could do—but o' course there ain't."

"No," she agreed. "Oh, well, I'm not worryin'. I'll show him when he comes back. I'm as big as he is behind a gun."

Bob looked at her, startled. He saw she was whistling to keep up her courage. "Are you sure enough afraid of him?"

Her eyes met his. She nodded. "He said he was coming back to marry me—good as said I could like it or lump it, he didn't care which."

"Sho! Tha's jus' talk. No girl has to marry a man if she don't want to. You don't need any gun-play. He can't make his brags good if you won't have him. It's a free country."

"If he told you to do something—this Jake Houck—you wouldn't think it was so free," the girl retorted without any life in her voice.

He jumped up, laughing. "Well, I don't expect he's liable to tell me to do anything. He ain't ever met up with me. I gotta go peel the spuds for supper. Don't you worry, June. He's bluffin'."

"I reckon," she said, and nodded a careless good-bye.



CHAPTER IV

CLIPPED WINGS

The Cinderella of Piceance Creek was scrupulously clean even though ragged and unkempt. Every Saturday night she shooed Pete Tolliver out of the house and took a bath in the tub which usually hung suspended from a wooden peg driven into the outer wall of the log cabin. Regularly as Monday came wash day.

On a windy autumn day, with the golden flames of fall burning the foliage of the hill woods, June built a fire of cottonwood branches near the brook and plunged with fierce energy into the week's washing. She was a strong, lithe young thing and worked rapidly. Her methods might not be the latest or the best, but they won results. Before the sun had climbed halfway to its zenith she had the clothes on the line.

Since she had good soapy suds and plenty of hot water left in the iron kettle, June decided to scrub the bed covers. Twenty minutes later, barefooted and barelegged, her skirts tucked up above the knees, the young washwoman was trampling blankets in the tub. She had no reason to suppose that anybody was within a mile of her. Wherefore, since the world was beautiful and mere life a joy, she improvised a child's song of thanksgiving.

It was a foolish little thing without rhyme or reason. It began nowhere and finished at the same place. But it lifted straight from the heart and perhaps it traveled as far heavenward as most prayers. She danced among the suds as she sang it, brown arms, bare to the elbows, stretched to the sunlit hills.

Wings—wings—wings! I can fly, 'way 'way 'way off, Over the creek, over the pinons. Goodness, yes! Like a meadow-lark. Over the hills, clear to Denver, Where the trains are. And it's lovely—lovely—lovely.

It was an unschooled, impulsive cry of the heart to the great soul of life and beauty that lies back of nature. No human eyes or ears were meant to see or hear the outburst. A shy girl's first day-dreams of her lover ought no more to be dragged out to the public gaze than this.

Through the quaking asps by the creek narrowed eyes gloated. Out of the thicket Jake Houck strode with a ribald laugh.

"Right pretty, my dear, but don't you spread them wings an' leave yore man alone."

The dancing spirit fled her flying feet. She was no longer a daughter of the skies, attuned to sunshine and laughter and the golden harmony of the hills. Joy and life were stricken out of her.

He had heard. He had seen. A poignant shame enveloped and scorched the girl's body. She was a wild thing who lived within herself. It was easy to put her in the wrong. She felt the mortification of one who has been caught in some indecent exhibition.

The humiliation was at first for the song and dance. Not till another moment did she think of the bare legs rising out of the soapsuds. His smouldering gaze brought them to mind.

Instantly she leaped from the tub, shook down the skirts, snatched up shoes and stockings, and fled barefooted to the house. A brogan dropped a few steps from the start. She stopped, as though to pick it up. But Houck was following. The girl turned and ran like a deer.

Houck retrieved the brogan and followed slowly. He smiled. His close-set eyes were gleaming. This was an adventure just to his taste.

The door of the cabin was bolted. He knocked.

"Here's yore shoe, sweetheart," he called.

No answer came. He tried the back door. It, too, had the bolt driven home.

"All right. If it ain't yore shoe I'll take it along with me. So long."

He walked away and waited in the bushes. His expectation was that this might draw her from cover. It did not.

Half an hour later Tolliver rode across the mesa. He found Houck waiting for him at the entrance to the corral. Pete nodded a rather surly greeting. He could not afford to quarrel with the man, but he was one of the last persons in the world he wanted to see.

"'Lo, Jake," he said. "Back again, eh?"

"Yep. Finished my business. I got to have a talk with you, Pete."

Tolliver slid a troubled gaze at him. What did Jake want? Was it money—hush money? The trapper did not have fifty dollars to his name, nor for that matter twenty.

"'S all right, Jake. If there's anything I can do for you—why, all you got to do's to let me know," he said uneasily.

Houck laughed, derisively. "Sure. I know how fond you are of me, Pete. You're plumb glad to see me again, ain't you? Jes' a-honin' to talk over old times, I'll bet."

"I'd as lief forget them days, Jake," Tolliver confessed. "I done turned over another chapter, as you might say. No need rakin' them up, looks like."

The big man's grin mocked him. "Tha's up to you, Pete. Me, I aim to be reasonable. I ain't throwin' off on my friends. All I want's to make sure they are my friends. Pete, I've took a fancy to yore June. I reckon I'll fix it up an' marry her."

His cold eyes bored into Tolliver. They held the man's startled, wavering gaze fixed.

"Why, Jake, you're old enough to be her father," he presently faltered.

"Maybe I am. But if there's a better man anywheres about I'd like to meet up with him an' have him show me. I ain't but forty-two, Pete, an' I can whip my weight in wild cats."

The father's heart sank. He knew Houck. The man would get by hook or crook what he wanted. He could even foretell what his next move would be.

"She's only a kid, Jake, not thinkin' none about gettin' married. In a year or two, maybe—"

"I'm talkin' about now, Pete—this week."

Tolliver wriggled, like a trout on the hook. "What does she say? You spoke of it to her?"

"Sure. She'll like it fine when she gets her mind used to it. I know how to handle women, Pete. I'm mentionin' this to you because I want you to use yore influence. See?"

Pete saw, too well. He moistened his lips with the tip of the tongue. "Why, I don't reckon I could very well do that. A girl's got to make up her own mind. She's too young to be figurin' on marryin'. Better give her time."

"No." Houck flung the word out like an oath. "Now. Right away."

The trapper's voice took on a plaintive note, almost a whine. "You was sayin' yoreself, Jake, that she'd have to get used to it. Looks like it wouldn't be good to rush—"

"She can get used to it after we're married."

"O' course I want to do what's right by my li'l' June. You do too for that matter. We wouldn't either one of us do her a meanness."

"I'm going to marry her," Houck insisted harshly.

"When a girl loses her mother she's sure lost her best friend. It's up to her paw to see she gets a square deal." There was a quaver of emotion in Tolliver's voice. "I don't reckon he can make up to her—"

A sound came from Houck's throat like a snarl. "Are you tryin' to tell me that Pete Tolliver's girl is too good for me? Is that where you're driftin'?"

"Now don't you get mad, Jake," the older man pleaded. "These here are different times. I don't want my June mixed up with—with them Brown's Park days an' all."

"Meanin' me?"

"You're twistin' my words, Jake," the father went on, an anxious desire to propitiate frowning out of the wrinkled face. "I ain't sayin' a word against you. I'm explainin' howcome I to feel like I do. Since I—bumped into that accident in the Park—"

Houck's ill-natured laugh cut the sentence. It was a jangled dissonance without mirth. "What accident?" he jeered.

"Why—when I got into the trouble—"

"You mean when Jas Stuart caught you rustlin' an' you murdered him an' went to the pen. That what you mean?" he demanded loudly.

Tolliver caught his sleeve. "S-sh! She don't know a thing about it. You recollect I told you that."

The other nodded, hard eyes gloating over the rancher's distress. "An' o' course she don't know you broke jail at Canyon City an' are liable to be dragged back if any one should happen to whisper to the sheriff."

"Not a thing about all that. I wouldn't holler it out thataway if I was you, Jake," Tolliver suggested, glancing nervously toward the house. "Maybe I ought to 'a' told her, but I never did. Her maw died of it, an' I jes' couldn't make out to tell June. You see yoreself how it would be, Pete. Her a li'l' trick with nobody but me. I ain't no great shakes, but at that I'm all she's got. I figured that 'way off here, under another name, they prob'ly never would find me."

"Pretty good guess, Pete Purdy."

"Don' call me that," begged Tolliver.

Houck showed his teeth in an evil grin. "I forgot. What I was sayin' was that nobody knows you're here but me. Most folks have forgot all about you. You can fix things so 's to be safe enough."

"You wouldn't give me away, Jake. You was in on the rustlin' too. We was pals. It was jes' my bad luck I met up with Jas that day. I didn't begin the shooting. You know that."

"I ain't likely to give away my own father-in-law, am I?"

Again the close-set, hard eyes clamped fast to the wavering ones of the tortured outlaw. In them Tolliver read an ultimatum. Notice was being served on him that there was only one way to seal Houck's lips.

That way he did not want to follow. Pete was a weak father, an ineffective one, wholly unable to give expression to the feeling that at times welled up in him. But June was all his life now held. He suffered because of the loneliness their circumstances forced upon her. The best was what he craved for her.

And Jake Houck was a long way from the best. He had followed rough and evil trails all his life. As a boy, in his cowpuncher days, he had been hard and callous. Time had not improved him.

June came to the door of the cabin and called.

"What is it, honey?" Tolliver asked.

"He's got my shoe. I want it."

Pete looked at the brogan sticking out of Jake's pocket. The big fellow forestalled a question.

"I'll take it to her," he said.

Houck strode to the house.

"So it's yore shoe after all," he grinned.

"Give it here," June demanded.

"Say pretty please."

She flashed to anger. "You're the meanest man I ever did meet."

"An' you're the prettiest barelegged dancer on the Creek," he countered.

June stamped the one shoe she was wearing. "Are you going to give me that brogan or not?"

"If you'll let me put it on for you."

Furious, she flung round and went back into the house.

He laughed delightedly, then tossed the heavy shoe into the room after her. "Here's yore shoe, girl. I was only foolin'," he explained.

June snatched up the brogan, stooped, and fastened it.



CHAPTER V

JUNE ASKS QUESTIONS

Houck, an unwelcome guest, stayed at the cabin on Piceance nearly two weeks. His wooing was surely one of the strangest known. He fleered at June, taunted her, rode over the girl's pride and sense of decorum, beat down the defenses she set up, and filled her bosom with apprehension. It was impossible to score an advantage over his stolid strength and pachydermous insensibility.

The trapper sweated blood. He neither liked nor trusted his guest, but he was bound hand and foot. He must sit and watch the fellow moving to his end, see the gains he made day by day, and offer no effective protest. For Houck at a word could send him back to the penitentiary and leave June alone in a world to which her life had been alien.

Pete knew that the cowman was winning the campaign. His assumption that he was an accepted suitor of June began to find its basis of fact. The truth could be read in the child's hunted eyes. She was still fighting, but the battle was a losing one.

Perhaps this was the best way out of a bad situation, Tolliver found himself thinking. In his rough way Houck was fond of June. A blind man could see that. Even though he was a wolf, there were moments when his eyes were tender for her. He would provide well for a wife. If his little Cinderella could bring herself to like the man, there was always a chance that love would follow. Jake always had the knack of fascinating women. He could be very attractive when he wished.

On a happy morning not long since June had sung of her wings. She was a meadow-lark swooping over the hills to freedom, her throat throbbing with songs of joy. Sometimes Pete, too, thought of her as a bird, but through many hours of anguished brooding he had come to know she was a fledgling with broken wings. The penalty for the father's sins had fallen upon the child. All her life she must be hampered by the environment his wrongdoing had built up around them.

Since the beginning of the world masterful men have drawn to them the eyes and thoughts of women. June was no exception. Among the hours when she hated Houck were increasing moments during which a naive wonder and admiration filled her mind. She was primitive, elemental. A little tingle of delight thrilled her to know that this strong man wanted her and would fight to win what his heart craved. After all he was her first lover. A queer shame distressed the girl at the memory of his kisses, for through all the anger, chagrin, and wounded pride had come to her the first direct realization of what sex meant. Her alarmed innocence pushed this from her.

Without scruple Houck used all the weapons at hand. There came a day when he skirted the edges of the secret.

"What do you mean?" she demanded. "What is it you claim to know about Dad all so big?"

He could see that June's eyes were not so bold as the words. They winced from his even as she put the question.

"Ask him."

"What'll I ask? I wouldn't believe anything you told me about him. He's not like you. He's good."

"You don't have to believe me. Ask him if he ever knew any one called Pete Purdy. Ask him who Jasper Stuart was. An' where he lived whilst you was stayin' with yore aunt at Rawlins."

"I ain't afraid to," she retorted. "I'll do it right now."

Houck was sprawled on a bench in front of the cabin. He grinned impudently. His manner was an exasperating challenge. Evidently he did not believe she would.

June turned and walked to the stable. The heavy brogans weighted down the lightness of her step. The shapeless clothes concealed the grace of the slim figure. But even so there was a vital energy in the way she moved.

Tolliver was mending the broken teeth of a hay-rake and making a poor job of it.

June made a direct frontal attack. "Dad, did you ever know a man named Pete Purdy?"

The rancher's lank, unshaven jaw fell. The blow had fallen at last. In a way he had expected it. Yet his mind was too stunned to find any road of escape.

"Why, yes—yes, I—yes, honey," he faltered.

"Who was he?"

"Well, he was a—a cowpuncher, I reckon."

"Who was Jasper Stuart, then?"

An explanation could no longer be dodged or avoided. Houck had talked too much. Tolliver knew he must make a clean breast of it, and that his own daughter would sit in judgment on him. Yet he hung back. The years of furtive silence still held him.

"He was a fellow lived in Brown's Park."

"What had you to do with him? Why did Jake Houck tell me to ask you about him?"

"Oh, I reckon—"

"And about where you lived while I was with Aunt Molly at Rawlins?" she rushed on.

The poor fellow moistened his dry lips. "I—I'll tell you the whole story, honey. Mebbe I'd ought to 'a' told you long ago. But someways—" He stopped, trying for a fresh start. "You'll despise yore old daddy. You sure will. Well, you got a right to. I been a mighty bad father to you, June. Tha's a fact."

She waited, dread-filled eyes on his.

"Prob'ly I'd better start at the beginnin', don't you reckon? I never did have any people to brag about. Father and mother died while I was a li'l' grasshopper. I was kinda farmed around, as you might say. Then I come West an' got to punchin' cows. Seems like, I got into a bad crowd. They was wild, an' they rustled more or less. In them days there was a good many sleepers an' mavericks on the range. I expect we used a running-iron right smart when we wasn't sure whose calf it was."

He was trying to put the best face on the story. June could see that, and her heart hardened toward him. She ignored the hungry appeal for mercy in his eyes.

"You mean you stole cattle. Is that it?" She was willing to hurt herself if she could give him pain. Had he not ruined her life?

"Well, I—I—Yes, I reckon that's it. Our crowd picked up calves that belonged to the big outfits like the Diamond Slash. We drove 'em up to Brown's Park, an' later acrost the line to Wyoming or Utah."

"Was Jake Houck one of your crowd?"

Pete hesitated.

She cut in, with a flare of childish ferocity. "I'm gonna know the truth. He's not protecting you any."

"Yes. Jake was one of us. I met up with him right soon after I come to Colorado."

"And Purdy?"

"Tha's the name I was passin' under. I'd worked back in Missouri for a fellow of that name. They got to callin' me Pete Purdy, so I kinda let it go. My father's name was Tolliver, though. I took it—after the trouble."

"What trouble?"

"It come after I was married. I met yore maw at Rawlins. She was workin' at the railroad restaurant waitin' on table. For a coupla years we lived there, an' I wish to God we'd never left. But Jake persuaded 'Lindy I'd ought to take up land, so we moved back to the Park an' I preempted. Everything was all right at first. You was born, an' we was right happy. But Jake kep' a-pesterin' me to go in with him an' do some cattle runnin' on the quiet. There was money in it—pretty good money—an' yore maw was sick an' needed to go to Denver. Jake, he advanced the money, an' o' course I had to work in with him to pay it back. I was sorta driven to it, looks like."

He stopped to mop a perspiring face with a bandanna. Tolliver was not enjoying himself.

"You haven't told me yet what the trouble was," June said.

"Well, this fellow Jas Stuart was a stock detective. He come down for the Cattlemen's Association to find out who was doing the rustlin' in Brown's Park. You see, the Park was a kind of a place where we holed up. There was timbered gulches in there where we could drift cattle in an' hide 'em. Then there was the Hole-in-the-Wall. I expect you've heard of that too."

"Did this Stuart find out who was doing the rustlin'?"

"He was right smart an' overbearin'. Too much so for his own good. Some of the boys served notice on him he was liable to get dry-gulched if he didn't take the trail back where he come from. But Jas was right obstinate an' he had sand in his craw. I'll say that for him. Well, one day he got word of a drive we was makin'. Him an' his deputies laid in wait for us. There was shooting an' my horse got killed. The others escaped, but they nailed me. In the rookus Stuart had got killed. They laid it on me. Mebbe I did it. I was shooting like the rest. Anyhow, I was convicted an' got twenty years in the pen."

"Twenty years," June echoed.

"Three—four years later there was a jail break. I got into the hills an' made my getaway. Travelin' by night, I reached Rawlins. From there I came down here with a freight outfit, an' I been here ever since."

He stopped. His story was ended. June looked at the slouchy little man with the weak mouth and the skim-milk, lost-dog eyes. He was so palpably wretched, so plainly the victim rather than the builder of his own misfortunes, that her generous heart went out warmly to him.

With a little rush she had him in her arms. They wept together, his head held tight against her immature bosom. It was the first time she had ever known him to break down, and she mothered him as women have from the beginning of time.

"You poor Daddy. Don't I know how it was? That Jake Houck was to blame. He led you into it an' left you to bear the blame," she crooned.

"It ain't me. It's you I'm thinkin' of, honey. I done ruined yore life, looks like. I shut you off from meeting decent folks like other girls do. You ain't had no show."

"Don't you worry about me, Dad. I'll be all right. What we've got to think about is not to let it get out who you are. If it wasn't for that big bully up at the house—"

She stopped, hopelessly unable to cope with the situation. Whenever she thought of Houck her mind came to an impasse. Every road of escape it traveled was blocked by his jeering face, with the jutting jaw set in implacable resolution.

"It don't look like Jake would throw me down thataway," he bewailed. "I never done him a meanness. I kep' my mouth shut when they got me an' wouldn't tell who was in with me. Tha's one reason they soaked me with so long a sentence. They was after Jake. They kep' at me to turn state's evidence an' get a short term. But o' course I couldn't do that."

"'Course not. An' now he turns on you like a coyote—after you stood by him." A surge of indignation boiled up in her. "He's the very worst man ever I knew—an' if he tries to do you any harm I'll—I'll settle with him."

Her father shook his unkempt head. "No, honey. I been learnin' for twelve years that a man can't do wrong for to get out of a hole he's in. If Jake's mean enough to give me up, why, I reckon I'll have to stand the gaff."

"No," denied June, a spark of flaming resolution in her shining eyes.



CHAPTER VI

"DON'T YOU TOUCH HIM!"

Inside the big chuck tent of the construction camp the cook was busy forking steak to tin plates and ladling potatoes into deep dishes.

"Git a move on you, Red Haid," he ordered.

Bob Dillon distributed the food at intervals along the table which ran nearly the whole length of the canvas top. From an immense coffee pot he poured the clear brown liquid into tin cups set beside each plate. This done, he passed out into the sunshine and beat the triangle.

From every tent men poured like seeds squirted from a squeezed lemon. They were all in a hurry and they jostled each other in their eagerness to get through the open flap. Straw boss, wood walkers, and ground men, they were all hungry. They ate swiftly and largely. The cook and his flunkey were kept busy.

"More spuds!" called one.

"Coming up!" Dillon flung back cheerfully.

"Shoot along more biscuits!" a second ordered.

"On the way!" Bob announced.

The boss of the outfit came in leisurely after the rush. He brought a guest with him and they sat down at the end of the table.

"Beans!" demanded a line man, his mouth full.

"Headed for you!" promised the flunkey.

The guest of the boss was a big rangy fellow in the early forties. Bob heard the boss call him "Jake," and later "Houck." As soon as the boy had a moment to spare he took a good look at the man. He did not like what he saw. Was it the cold, close-set eyes, the crook of the large nose, or the tight-lipped mouth gave the fellow that semblance to a rapacious wolf?

As soon as Bob had cleaned up the dishes he set off up the creek to meet June. The boy was an orphan and had been brought up in a home with two hundred others. His life had been a friendless one, which may have been the reason that he felt a strong bond of sympathy for the lonely girl on Piceance. He would have liked to be an Aladdin with a wonder lamp by means of which he could magically transform her affairs to good fortune. Since this could not be, he gave her what he had—a warm fellow-feeling because of the troubles that worried her.

He found June waiting at their usual place of meeting. Pete Tolliver's forty-four hung in a scabbard along the girl's thigh. Bob remembered that she had spoken of seeing a rattlesnake on the trail yesterday.

"'Lo, boy," she called.

"'Lo, June. I met yore friend."

"What friend?"

"Jake Houck. He was down at the camp for dinner to-day—came in with the boss."

"He's no friend of mine," she said sulkily.

"Don't blame you a bit. Mr. Houck looks like one hard citizen. I'd hate to cross him."

"He's as tough as an old range bull. No matter what you say or do you can't faze him," she replied wearily.

"You still hate him?"

"More 'n ever. Most o' the time. He just laughs. He's bound an' determined to marry me whether or not. He will, too."

Bob looked at her, surprised. It was the first time she had ever admitted as much. June's slim body was packed with a pantherish resilience. Her spirit bristled with courage. What had come over her?

"He won't if you don't want him to."

"Won't he?" June was lying on a warm flat rock. She had been digging up dirt at the edge of it with a bit of broken stick. Now she looked up at him with the scorn of an experience she felt to be infinitely more extensive than his. "A lot you know about it."

"How can he? If you an' Mr. Tolliver don't want him to."

"He just will."

"But, June, that don't listen reasonable to me. He's got you buffaloed. If you make up yore mind not to have him—"

"I didn't say I'd made up my mind not to have him. I said I hated him," she corrected.

"Well, you wouldn't marry a fellow you hated," he argued.

"How do you know so much about it, Bob Dillon?" she flared.

"I use what brains I've got. Women don't do things like that. There wouldn't be any sense in it."

"Well, I'll prob'ly do it. Then you'll know I haven't got a lick o' sense," she retorted sullenly.

"You ce'tainly beat my time," he said, puzzled. "I've heard you say more mean things about him than everybody else put together, an' now you're talkin' about marryin' him. Why? What's yore reason?"

She looked up. For a moment the morose eyes met his. They told nothing except a dogged intention not to tell anything.

But the boy was no fool. He had thought a good deal about the lonely life she and her father led. Many men came into this country three jumps ahead of the law. It was not good form to ask where any one came from unless he volunteered information about antecedent conditions. Was it possible that Jake Houck had something on Tolliver, that he was using his knowledge to force June into a marriage with him? Otherwise there would be no necessity for her to marry him. As he had told her, it was a free land. But if Houck was coercing her because of her fears for Tolliver, it was possible this might be a factor in determining June to marry him.

"Don't you do it, June. Don't you marry him. He didn't look good to me, Houck didn't," Dillon went on. He was a little excited, and his voice had lifted.

A man who came at this moment round the bend of the creek was grinning unpleasantly. His eyes focused on Dillon.

"So I don't look good to you. Tha's too bad. If you'll tell me what you don't like about me I'll make myself over," jeered Houck.

Bob was struck dumb. The crooked smile and the stab of the eyes that went with it were menacing. He felt goose quills running up and down his spine. This man was one out of a thousand for physical prowess.

"I didn't know you was near," the boy murmured.

"I'll bet you didn't, but you'll know it now." Houck moved toward Dillon slowly.

"Don't you, Jake Houck! Don't you touch him!" June shrilled.

"I got to beat him up, June. It's comin' to him. D'you reckon I'll let the flunkey of a telephone camp interfere in my business? Why, he ain't half man-size."

Bob backed away warily. This Colossus straddling toward him would thrash him within an inch of his life. The boy was white to the lips.

"Stop! Right now!" June faced Houck resolutely, standing between him and his victim.

The big fellow looked at the girl, a slim, fearless little figure with undaunted eyes flinging out a challenge. He laughed, delightedly, then brushed her aside with a sweep of his arm.

Her eyes blazed. The smouldering passion that had been accumulating for weeks boiled up. She dragged out the six-shooter from its holster.

"I won't have you touch him! I won't! If you do I'll—I'll—"

Houck stopped in his stride, held fast by sheer amazement. The revolver pointed straight at him. It did not waver a hair's breadth. He knew how well she could shoot. Only the day before she had killed a circling hawk with a rifle. The bird had dropped like a plummet, dead before it struck the ground. Now, as his gaze took in the pantherish ferocity of her tense pose, he knew that she was keyed up for tragedy. She meant to defend the boy from him if it resulted in homicide.

It did not occur to him to be afraid. He laughed aloud, half in admiration, half in derision.

"I b'lieve you would, you spunky li'l wild cat," he told her in great good humor.

"Run, Bob," called June to the boy.

He stood, hesitating. His impulse was to turn and fly, but he could not quite make up his mind to leave her alone with Houck.

The cowman swung toward the girl.

"Keep back!" she ordered.

Her spurt of defiance tickled him immensely. He went directly to her, his stride unfaltering.

"Want to shoot up poor Jake, do you? An' you an' him all set for a honeymoon. Well, go to it, June. You can't miss now."

He stood a yard or so from her, easy and undisturbed, laughing in genuine enjoyment. He liked the child's pluck. The situation, with its salty tang of danger, was wholly to his taste.

But he had disarmed the edge of June's anger and apprehension. His amusement was too real. It carried the scene from tragedy to farce.

June's outburst had not been entirely for the sake of Bob. Back of the immediate cause was the desire to break away from this man's dominance. She had rebelled in the hope of establishing her individual freedom. Now she knew this was vain. What was the use of opposing one who laughed at her heroics and ignored the peril of his position? There was not any way to beat him.

She pushed the six-shooter back into its holster and cried out at him bitterly. "I think you're the devil or one of his fiends."

"An' I think you're an angel—sometimes," he mocked.

"I hate you!" she said, and two rows of strong little white teeth snapped tight.

"Sho! Tha's just a notion you got. You like me fine, if you only knew it, girl."

She was still shaken with the emotion through which she had passed. "You never were nearer death, Jake Houck, than right now a minute ago."

His back to Dillon, the cowman gave a curt command. "Hit the trail, boy—sudden."

Bob looked at June, whose sullen eyes were fighting those of her father's guest. She had forgotten he was there. Without a word Bob vanished.

"So you love me well enough to shoot me, do you?" Houck jeered.

"I wish I could!" she cried furiously.

"But you can't. You had yore chance, an' you couldn't. What you need is a master, some one you'll have to honor an' obey, some one who'll look after you an' take the devil outa you. Meanin' me—Jake Houck. Understand?"

"I won't! I won't!" she cried. "You come here an' bully me because—because of what you know about Father. If you were half a man—if you were white, you wouldn't try to use that against me like you do."

"I'm using it for you. Why, you li'l' spitfire, can't you see as Jake Houck's wife you get a chance to live? You'll have clothes an' shoes an' pretties like other folks instead o' them rags you wear now. I aim to be good to you, June."

"You say that. Don't I know you? I'd 'most rather be dead than married to you. But you keep pesterin' me. I—I—" Her voice broke.

"If you don' know what's best for you, I do. To-morrow I got to go to Meeker. I'll be back Thursday. We'll ride over to Bear Cat Friday an' be married. Tha's how we'll fix it."

He did not take her in his arms or try to kiss her. The man was wise in his generation. Cheerfully, as a matter of course, he continued:

"We'll go up to the house an' tell Tolliver it's all settled."

She lagged back, sulkily, still protesting. "It's not settled, either. You don't run everything."

But in her heart she was afraid he had stormed the last trench of her resistance.



CHAPTER VII

AN ELOPEMENT

Bob Dillon was peeling potatoes outside the chuck tent when he heard a whistle he recognized instantly. It was a very good imitation of a meadow-lark's joyous lilt. He answered it, put down the pan and knife, and rose.

"Where you going?" demanded the cook.

"Back in a minute, Lon," the flunkey told him, and followed a cow trail that took him up the hill through the sage.

"I never did see a fellow like him," the cook communed aloud to himself. "A bird calls, an' he's got to quit work to find out what it wants. Kinda nice kid, too, if he is queer."

Among the pinons at the rock rim above Bob found June. He had not seen her since the day when she had saved him from a thrashing. The boy was not very proud of the way he had behaved. If he had not shown the white feather, he had come dangerously close to it.

"How are cases, June?"

His eyes, which had been rather dodging hers, came to rest on the girl at last. One glance told him that she was in trouble.

"I don' know what to do, Bob," she broke out. "Jake will be back to-day—by dinner-time, I reckon. He says I've got to go with him to Bear Cat an' be married to-morrow."

Dillon opened his lips to speak, but he said nothing. He remembered how he had counseled her to boldness before and failed at the pinch. What advice could he give? What could he say to comfort his friend?

"Haven't you got any folks you could go to—some one who would tell Houck where to head in at?"

She shook her head. "My father's all I've got."

"Won't he help you?"

"He would, but—I can't ask him. I got to pretend to him I'd just as lief marry Jake."

"Why have you?"

"I can't tell you why, Bob. But that's how it is."

"And you still hate Houck?"

"Ump-ha. Except—sometimes." She did not explain that elusive answer. "But it don't matter about how I feel. When he comes back I've got to do like he says."

June broke down and began to weep. The boy's tender heart melted within him.

"Don't you. Don't you," he begged. "We'll find a way, li'l' pardner. We sure will."

"How?" she asked, between sobs. "There ain't—any way—except to—to marry Jake."

"You could run away—and work," he suggested.

"Who'd give me work? And where could I go that he wouldn't find me?"

Practical details stumped him. Her objections were valid enough. With her inexperience she could never face the world alone.

"Well, le's see. You've got friends. Somewhere that you could kinda hide for a while."

"Not a friend. We—we don't make friends," she said in a small, forlorn voice with a catch in it.

"You got one," he said stoutly. "Maybe he don't amount to much, but—" He broke off, struck by an idea. "Say, June, why couldn't you run off with me? We'd go clear away, where he wouldn't find us."

"How could I run off with you?" A pink flood poured into her face. "You're not my brother. You're no kin."

"No, but—" He frowned at the ground, kicking at a piece of moss with his toe to help him concentrate. Again he found an idea. "We could get married."

This left her staring at him, speechless.

He began to dress his proposal with arguments. He was a humble enough youth who had played a trifling part in life. But his imagination soared at seeing himself a rescuer of distressed maidens. He was a dreamer of dreams. In them he bulked large and filled heroic roles amply.

June was a practical young person. "What d' you want to marry me for?" she demanded.

He came to earth. He did not want to marry her. At least he had not wanted to until the moment before. If he had been able to give the reason for his suggestion, it would probably have been that her complete isolation and helplessness appealed to the same conditions in himself and to a certain youthful chivalry.

"We're good pals, ain't we?" was the best he could do by way of answer.

"Yes, but you don't—you don't—"

Beneath the tan of her dark cheeks the blood poured in again. It was as hard for her to talk about love as for him. She felt the same shy, uneasy embarrassment, as though it were some subject taboo, not to be discussed by sane-minded people.

His freckled face matched hers in color. "You don't have to be thataway. If we like each other, an' if it looks like the best thing to do—why—"

"I couldn't leave Dad," she said.

"You'll have to leave him if you marry Jake Houck."

That brought her to another aspect of the situation. If she ran away with Bob and married him, what would Houck do in regard to her father? Some deep instinct told her that he would not punish Tolliver for it if she went without his knowledge. The man was ruthless, but he was not needlessly cruel.

"What would we do? Where would we go—afterward?" she asked.

He waved a hand largely into space. "Anywhere. Denver, maybe. Or Cheyenne. Or Salt Lake."

"How'd we live?"

"I'd get work. No trouble about that."

She considered the matter, at first unsentimentally, as a workable proposition. In spite of herself she could not hold quite to that aspect of the case. Her blood began to beat faster. She would escape Houck. That was the fundamental advantage of the plan. But she would see the world. She would meet people. Perhaps for the first time she would ride on a train. Wonderful stories had been told her by Dillon, of how colored men cooked and served meals on a train rushing along forty miles an hour, of how they pulled beds down from the roof and folks went to sleep in little rooms just as though they were at home. She would see all the lovely things he had described to her. There was a court-house in Denver where you got into a small room and it traveled up with you till you got out and looked down four stories from a window.

"If we go it'll have to be right away," she said. "Without tellin' anybody."

"Yes," he agreed.

"I could go back to the house an' get my things."

"While I'm gettin' mine. There's nobody at the camp but Lon, an' he always sleeps after he gets through work. But how'll we get to Bear Cat?"

"I'll bring the buckboard. Dad's away. I'll leave him a note. Meet you in half an hour on Twelve-Mile Hill," she added.

It was so arranged.

June ran back to the house, hitched the horses to the buckboard, and changed to her best dress. She made a little bundle of her other clothes and tied them in a bandanna handkerchief.

On a scrap of coarse brown wrapping-paper she wrote a short note:

Dear Dad,

I'm going away with Bob Dillon. We're going to be married. Don't blame me too much. Jake Houck drove me to it. I'll write you soon. Don't forget to take the cough medicine when you need it.

June

She added a postscript.

I'll leave the team at Kilburn's Corral.

Unexpectedly, she found herself crying. Tears splashed on the writing. She folded the note, put it in the empty coffee pot, and left this on the table.

June had no time just now for doubts. The horses were half-broken broncos. They traveled the first hundred yards tied in a knot, the buckboard sometimes on four wheels, but more often on two.

At the top of the hill she managed to slacken them enough for Bob to jump in. They were off again as though shot from a bow. June wound the reins round her hands and leaned back, arms and strong thin wrists taut. The colts flew over the ground at a gallop.

There was no chance for conversation. Bob watched the girl drive. He offered no advice. She was, he knew, a better teamster than himself. Her eyes and mind were wholly on the business in hand.

A flush of excitement burned in June's cheeks. Tolliver never would let her drive the colts because of the danger. She loved the stimulation of rapid travel, the rush of the wind past her ears, the sense of responsibility at holding the lines.

Bob clung to the seat and braced himself. He knew that all June could do was to steady the team enough to keep the horses in the road. Every moment he expected a smash, but it did not come. The colts reached the foot of Twelve-Mile safely and swept up the slope beyond. The driver took a new grip on the lines and put her weight on them. It was a long hill. By the time they reached the top the colts were under control and ready to behave for the rest of the day.

The sparkling eyes of June met those of Bob. "Great, ain't it?"

He nodded, but it had not been fun for him. He had been distinctly frightened. He felt for June the reluctant admiration gameness compels from those who are constitutionally timid. What manner of girl was this who could shave disaster in such a reckless fashion and actually enjoy it?

At the edge of the town they exchanged seats at June's suggestion and Bob drove in. It was mid-afternoon by the sun as he tied the horses to the rack in front of the larger of the two general stores.

"You stay here," the boy advised. "I'll get things fixed, then come back an' let you know."

He had only a hazy idea of the business details of getting married, but he knew a justice of the peace could tell him. He wandered down the street in search of one.

Half a dozen cowpunchers bent on sport drifted in his direction. One of them was riding down the dusty road. To the horn of his saddle a rope was tied. The other end of it was attached to a green hide of a steer dragging after him.

The punchers made a half-circle round Bob.

One grinned and made comment. "Here's one looks ripe, fellows. Jes' a-honin' for a ride, looks like."

"Betcha he don't last ten jumps," another said.

Before Bob could offer any resistance or make any protest he had been jubilantly seized and dumped down on the hide.

"Let 'er go," some one shouted.

The horse, at the touch of the spur, jumped to a gallop. Bob felt a sudden sick sense of helplessness. The earth was cut out from under him. He crouched low and tried to cling to the slippery hide as it bounced forward. Each leap of the bronco upset him. Within three seconds he had ridden on his head, his back, and his stomach. Wildly he clawed at the rope as he rolled over.

With a yell the rider swung a corner. Bob went off the hide at a tangent, rolling over and over in the yellow four-inch-deep dust.

He got up, dizzy and perplexed. His best suit looked as though it had been through a long and severe war.

A boyish puncher came up and grinned at him in the friendliest way. "Hello, fellow! Have a good ride?"

Bob smiled through the dust he had accumulated. "It didn't last long."

"Most generally it don't. Come in to Dolan's an' have a drink." He mentioned his name. It was Dud Hollister.

"Can't." Bob followed an impulse. "Say, how do you get married?" he asked, lowering his voice.

"I don't," Dud answered promptly. "Not so long as I'm in my right mind."

"I mean, how do I?" He added sheepishly, "She's in the buckboard."

"Oh!" Dud fell to sudden sobriety. This was serious business. "I'd get a license at the cou't-house. Then go see Blister Haines. He's the J. P."

Bob equipped himself with a license, returned to June, and reported progress.

The bride-to-be was simmering with indignation. In those days she had not yet cultivated a sense of humor.

"I saw what they did to you—the brutes," she snapped.

"Sho! That wasn't nothin', June. The boys was only funnin'. Well, I got things fixed. We gotta go to the J. P."

The justice was having forty winks when they entered his office. He was enormously fat, a fact notable in a country of lean men. Moreover, he had neither eyebrows nor hair, though his face announced him not more than thirty in spite of its triple chin. Mr. Haines was slumped far down in a big armchair out of which he overflowed prodigally. His feet were on a second chair.

Bob wakened him ruthlessly. He sat up blinking. Bob started to speak. He stopped him with a fat uplifted hand.

"I r-reckon I know what you want, y-young man," he said.



CHAPTER VIII

BLISTER GIVES ADVICE

Blister Haines, J. P., was by way of being a character. His waggish viewpoint was emphasized by a slight stutter.

"S-so you want to h-hitch up to double trouble, do you?" he asked.

"We want to get married," Bob said.

"S-same thing," the fat man wheezed, grinning. "C-come right in an' I'll tie you tighter 'n a d-drum."

"I've only got six dollars," the bridegroom explained.

"No matter a-tall. My f-fee is jus' six d-dollars," the justice announced promptly.

Bob hesitated. June nudged him and whispered. The husband-elect listened, nodded, and spoke up.

"I'll pay you two dollars."

Blister looked at the bride reproachfully. "L-lady, if you ain't worth s-six dollars to him you ain't worth a c-cent. But I'll show you how good a sport I am. I'll m-make you a wedding present of the j-job. Got any witnesses?"

"Do we have to have witnesses?" asked Bob helplessly. Getting married was a more formidable and formal affair than he had supposed.

"Sure. I'll dig 'em up."

The justice waddled to the door of the saloon adjoining and stuck his head inside. A row of cowpunchers were lined up in front of the bar.

"Y-you, Dud Hollister an' Tom Reeves, I'm servin' a subpoena on you lads as w-witnesses at a w-weddin'," he said in the high wheeze that sounded so funny coming from his immense bulk.

"Whose wedding?" demanded Reeves, a lank youth with a brick-red face, the nose of which had been broken.

"N-none of yore darned business."

"Do we get to kiss the bride?"

"You h-hotfoot it right to my office or I'll throw you in the c-calaboose for c-contempt of court, Tom Reeves."

The puncher turned to Hollister, grinning. "Come along, Dud. Might 's well learn how it's done, ol' Sure-Shot."

The range-riders jingled into the office at the heels of the justice. Blister inquired for the names of the principals and introduced the witnesses to them. The gayety and the audacity of the punchers had vanished. They ducked their heads and drew back a foot each in a scrape that was meant to be a bow. They were almost as embarrassed as June and Bob. Which is saying a good deal.

June had not realized what an ordeal it would be to stand up before strangers in her dingy dress and heavy cracked brogans while she promised to love, honor, and obey. She was acutely conscious of her awkwardness, of the flying, rebellious hair, of a hole in a stocking she tried to keep concealed. And for the first time, too, she became aware of the solemnity of what she was doing. The replies she gave were low and confused.

Before she knew it the ceremony was over.

Blister closed the book and dropped it on a chair.

"Kiss yore wife, man," he admonished, chuckling.

Bob flushed to the roots of his hair. He slid a look at June, not sure whether she would want him to do that. Her long dark lashes had fallen to the dusky cheeks and hid the downcast eyes.

His awkward peck caught her just below the ear.

The bridegroom offered the justice two dollars. Blister took it and handed it to June.

"You keep it, ma'am, an' buy yorese'f somethin' for a p-pretty. I'd jes' b-blow it anyhow. Hope you'll be r-real happy. If this yere young s-scalawag don't treat you h-handsome, Tom an' Dud'll be glad to ride over an' beat him up proper 'most any time you give 'em the high sign. Am I right, boys?"

"Sure are," they said, grinning bashfully.

"As j-justice of the peace for Garfield County, S-state of C-colorado, I'm entitled to k-kiss the bride, but mos' generally I give her one o' these heart-to-heart talks instead, onloadin' from my chest some f-free gratis g-good advice," the fat man explained in his hoarse wheeze. "You got to r-remember, ma'am, that m-marriage ain't duck soup for n-neither the one nor the other of the h-high contractin' parties thereto. It's a g-game of give an' take, an' at that a h-heap more give than take."

"Yes, sir," murmured June tremulously, looking down at the hole in her stocking.

"Whilst I n-never yet c-committed matrimony in my own p-person, me being ample provided with t-trouble an' satisfied with what griefs I already got, yet I've run cows off an' on, an' so have had workin' for me several of this sex you've now got tangled up with, ma'am," Blister sailed on cheerfully. "I'll say the best way to keep 'em contented is to feed 'em good, treat 'em as if they was human, an' in general give 'em a more or less free rein, dependin' on their g-general habits an' cussedness. If that don't suit a p-puncher I most usually h-hand him his hat an' say, 'So long, son, you 'n' me ain't c-consanguineously constructed to ride the same range; no hard feelin's, but if you're w-wishful to jog on to another outfit I'll say adios without no tears.' You can't g-get rid of yore husband that easy, ma'am, so I'll recommend the g-good grub, s-seventy-five s-smiles per diem, an' the aforesaid more or less f-free rein."

Again June whispered, "Yes, sir," but this time her honest eyes lifted and went straight into his.

"An' you." The justice turned his batteries on the groom. "You w-wanta recollect that this r-road you've done chose ain't no easy one to t-travel. Tenderfoot come in the other day an' w-wanted to know what kind of a road it was to S-stinking Creek. I tell him it's a g-good road. Yesterday he come rarin' in to f-find out what I told him that for. 'Fellow,' I says, 'Fellow, any r-road you can g-get over is a good road in this country.' It's t-thataway with marriage, son, an' don't you forget it a h-holy minute. Another thing, this being u-united in wedlock ain't no sinecure."

"Ain't no which kind of a sin?" inquired Reeves.

Dud Hollister grinned admiringly. "Blister sure ropes an' hogties a heap of longhorn words."

The justice scratched his bald poll and elucidated. "A s-sinecure, boys, is when a f-fellow rides the g-grub line habitual an' don't rope no d-dogies for his stack o' wheats an' c-coffee." He wagged a fat forefinger at Bob. "You gotta quit hellin' around now an' behave yorese'f like a respectable m-married man. You gotta dig in an' work. At that you 'n' the little lady will have yore flareups. When you do, give her the best of it an' you'll never be sorry. Tha's all."

Blister slid a hand furtively into a drawer of the desk, groped for a moment, then flung a handful of rice over bride and groom.

The newly married couple left the office hurriedly. They did not look at each other. An acute shyness had swept over both of them. They walked to the buckboard, still without speaking.

June opened a perspiring little brown palm in which lay two warm silver dollars. "Here's yore money," she said.

"It's yours. He gave it to you," Bob answered, swallowing hard. "For a weddin' present."

"Well, I ain't no pockets. You keep it for me."

The transfer was accomplished, neither of them looking into the eyes of the other.

Blister Haines, flanked on each side by one of the witnesses, rolled past on his way to the bar of the Bear Cat House. His throat was dry and he proposed to liquidate his unusual exertion. He always celebrated a wedding by taking a few drinks. Any excuse was a good excuse for that. He waved a hand toward the newlyweds in greeting.

Bob answered by lifting his own. He had not taken three drinks in his life, but he felt that he would like one now. It might cheer him up a little.

What in the world was he to do with June? Where could he take her for the night? And after that what would they do? He had not money enough to pay stage fare to get them away. He did not know anybody from whom he could borrow any. Yet even if he found work in Bear Cat, they dared not stay here. Houck would come "rip-raring" down from the hills and probably murder him.

Anyhow, it would not do for him to act as though he were stumped. He managed a smile.

"We'd better take the team to the corral, then go get something to eat, June. I'm sure enough hungry. Ain't you?"

She nodded. Even to go to the hotel or a restaurant for dinner was an adventure for her, so little of experience had her life offered.

As they walked from the barn to the Bear Cat House, the girl-bride was still dumb. The marriage ceremony had brought home to her the solemnity of what she had done. She had promised to love, honor, and obey this boy, to care for him in sickness and in health, till death came to part them.

What did she know about him? What manner of man had she married? The consequences of the step they had taken began to appall her. She would have to live with him in all the intimacies of married life, cook for him, wash his clothes, sit opposite him at the table three times a day for fifty years. He was to be the father of her children, and she knew nothing whatever about him except that he was gentle and friendly.

From under long curving lashes she stole a shy look at him. He was her husband, this stranger. Would she be able to please him? June thought of what Blister Haines had said. She was a pretty good cook. That was one thing. And she would try not to let herself sulk or be a spitfire. Maybe he would not get tired of her if she worked real hard to suit him.

The hotel was an adobe building. In the doorway stood a woman leaning against the jamb. She was smoking a cigar. June looked twice at her before she believed her eyes.

The woman took the cigar from between her lips. "Are you the children Blister Haines just married?" she asked bluntly.

"We—we've just been married by Mr. Haines," Bob replied with an attempt at dignity.

The blue eyes of the woman softened as she looked at June—softened indescribably. They read instantly the doubt and loneliness of the child. She threw the cigar into the street and moved swiftly toward the bride. A moment before she had been hard and sexless, in June's virgin eyes almost a monstrosity. Now she was all mother, filled with the protective instinct.

"I'm Mollie Gillespie—keep the hotel here," she explained. "You come right in an' I'll fix up a nice room for you, my dearie. You can wash up after yore ride and you'll feel a lot better. I'll have Chung Lung cook you both a bit of supper soon as he comes back to the kitchen. A good steak an' some nice French frys, say. With some of the mince pie left from dinner and a good cup of coffee." Mollie's arm was round June, petting and comforting her.

June felt and repressed an impulse to tears. "You're mighty good," she gulped.

The landlady of the Bear Cat House bustled the girl into a room and began to mother her. Bob hung around the door. He did not know whether he was expected to come in or stay out, though he knew which he wanted to do.

Mollie sent him about his business. "Scat!" she snapped. "Get outa here, Mr. Husband, an' don't you show up till five o'clock prompt. Hear me?"

Bob heard and vanished like a tin-canned pup. He was the most relieved youth in Bear Cat. At least he had a reprieve. Mrs. Gillespie would know what to do and how to do it.

If being a married man was like this, he did not wonder that Dud Hollister and Blister Haines felt the way they did toward that holy estate.



CHAPTER IX

THE WHITE FEATHER

At the appointed time Bob sneaked back to the hotel. He hung around the lobby for a minute or two, drifted into the saloon and gambling annex, and presently found himself hanging over the bar because he did not know what else to do with himself.

Was he to go to the room after June and bring her to supper? Or was he to wait until she came out? He wished he knew.

Mollie caught sight of him and put a flea in his ear. "What d' you think you're doing here, young fellow, me lad? Get outa this den of iniquity an' hustle back to the room where the little lady is waitin' for you. Hear me?" she snorted.

A minute later Bob was knocking timidly on the door of room 9. A small voice told him to come in. He opened the door.

June shyly met the eyes of her husband. "Mrs. Gillespie said maybe you'd want to wash up before supper."

"I reckon that'd be a good idee," he said, shifting from one foot to the other.

Did she expect him to wash here? Or what?

June poured water into the basin and found a towel.

Not for a five-dollar bill would Bob have removed his coat, though there had never been a time in his young life when he would have welcomed more a greenback. He did not intend to be indelicate while alone with a young woman in a bedroom. The very thought of it made him scarlet to the roots of his red hair.

After he had scrubbed himself till his face was like a shining apple, June lent him a comb. She stole a furtive look at him while he was standing before the small cracked mirror. For better or worse he was her man. She had to make the best of him. A sense of proprietorship that was almost pride glowed faintly in her. He was a nice boy, even if he was so thin and red and freckled. Bob would be good to her. She was sure of that.

"Mrs. Gillespie said she reckoned she could fix you up a job to help the cook," the bride said.

"You mean—to-night or for good?"

"Right along, she said."

Bob did not welcome the suggestion. There was an imperative urge within him to get away from Bear Cat before Jake Houck arrived. There was no use dodging it. He was afraid of the fellow's vengeance. This was a country where men used firearms freely. The big man from Brown's Park might shoot him down at sight.

"I don't reckon we'd better stay here," he answered uneasily. "In a bigger town I can get a better job likely."

"But we haven't money enough to go on the stage, have we?"

"If there was a bull team going out mebbe I could work my way."

"W-e-ll." She considered this dubiously. "If we stayed here Mrs. Gillespie would let me wash dishes an' all. She said she'd give me two dollars a week an' my board. Tha's a lot of money, Bob."

He looked out of the window. "I don't want trouble with Jake Houck. It—it would worry you."

"Yes, but—" June did not quite know how to say what was in her mind. She had an instinctive feeling that the way to meet trouble was to face it unafraid and not to run away from it. "I don't reckon we'd better show Jake we're scared of him—now. O' course he'll be mad at first, but he's got no right to be. Jes' 'cause he kep' a-pesterin' me don't give him no claim on me."

"No, but you know what he is an' how he acts."

"I'll go where you want to go. I jes' thought, seein' how good to us Mrs. Gillespie has been, that maybe—"

"Well, we'll talk it over after supper," Bob said. "I'm for lighting out myself. To Laramie or Cheyenne, say."

As they had not eaten since breakfast they were a pair of hungry young animals. They did full justice to the steak, French frys, mince pie, and coffee Mrs. Gillespie had promised.

They hung for a moment awkwardly outside the dining-room. Both of them were looking for an excuse to avoid returning to their room yet.

"Like to look the town over?" Bob asked.

June accepted eagerly.

They walked up the single business street and looked in the windows. The young husband bought his bride a paper sack of chocolates and they ate them as they strolled. Somehow they did not feel half as shy of each other in the open as when shut up together between the walls of a bedroom.

Dusk was beginning to fall. It veiled the crude and callow aspects of the frontier town and filled the hollows of the surrounding hills with a soft violet haze.

Bob's eyes met the dark orbs of June. Between them some communication flashed. For the first time a queer emotion clutched at the boy's heart. An intoxicating thrill pulsed through his veins. She was his wife, this shy girl so flushed and tender.

His hand caught hers and gave it a little comforting pressure. It was his first love gesture and it warmed her like wine.

"You're right good to me," she murmured.

She was grateful for so little. All her life she had been starved for love and friendship just as he had. Bob resolved to give them to her in a flood. A great tide of sympathy flowed out from him to her. He would be good to her. He wished she knew now how well he meant to look after her. But he could not tell her. A queer shame tied his tongue.

From a blacksmith shop a man stepped.

"Say, fellow, can I see you a minute?" he asked.

It was Dud Hollister. He drew Bob back into the smithy.

"Big guy in town lookin' for you. He's tankin' up. You heeled?"

Bob felt as though his heart had been drenched with ice water. Houck was here then. Already.

"No, I—I don't carry a gun," he replied, weakly.

"Here's mine. Shoots just a mite high, but she's a good old friend." Dud pressed a six-shooter on Dillon.

The boy took it reluctantly. The blood in his veins ran cold. "I dunno. I reckon mebbe I better not. If I talked to him, don't you think—?"

"Talk, hell! He's out for blood, that guy is. He's made his brags right over the bar at Dolan's what all he's gonna do to you. I'm no gunman, understand. But a fellow's got to look out for number one. I'd let him have it soon as I seen him. Right off the reel."

"Would you?"

"Surest thing you know. He's a bad actor, that fellow is."

"If I went to the marshal—"

Dud's eye held derision. "What good'd that do? Simp ain't gonna draw cards till after some one's been gunned. He don't claim to be no mind-reader, Simp don't."

"I'm not lookin' for trouble," Bob began to explain.

"Fellow, it's lookin' for you," cut in Dud. "You hold that gun right under yore coat, an' when you meet up with Mr. Hook or whoever he is, don't you wait to ask 'What for?' Go to fannin'."

Bob rejoined June. His lips were bloodless. He felt a queer weakness in the knees.

"What did he want?" asked June.

"Houck's here—lookin' for me," the wretched boy explained.

"What's that you've got under yore coat?" she demanded quickly.

"It's a—a gun. He made me take it. Said Houck was tellin' how he'd—do for me."

The fear-filled eyes of the boy met the stricken ones of his bride. She knew now what she had before suspected and would not let herself believe.

If it was possible she must help him to avoid a meeting with Houck. She could not have him shamed. Her savage young pride would not permit the girl to mate with one who proved himself a coward at a crisis of his life. It was necessary to her self-respect that she save his.

"We'd better go back to the hotel," she said. "You can stay in our room, and I'll send for Jake an' talk with him downstairs."

"I don't reckon I'd better do that," Bob protested feebly. "He might—hurt you. No tellin'."

June ignored this. "Did you hear whether Dad's with him?" she asked.

"No."

"Where is Jake?"

"He was at Dolan's drinking when that Dud Hollister seen him."

"I'll have him come right away—before he's had too much. Dad says he used to be mean when he was drinkin'."

The hotel was in the same block as Dolan's, a hundred feet beyond it. They were passing the saloon when the door was pushed open and a man came out. At sight of them he gave a triumphant whoop.

"Got ya!" he cried.

The look on his face daunted Bob. The boy felt the courage dry up within him. Mouth and throat parched. He tried to speak and found he could not.

June took up the gage, instantly, defiantly. "You've got nothing to do with us, Jake Houck. We're married."

The news had reached him. He looked at her blackly. "Married or single, you're mine, girl, an' you're going with me."

"My husband will have a word to say about that," June boasted bravely.

Houck looked at his rival, and a sinister, mocking smile creased the hard face. "I'm plumb scared of him," he jeered.

"We g-got a right to get married, Mr. Houck," Bob said, teeth chattering. "You hadn't ought to make us trouble."

"Speaks up right brave, don't he?"

"He's as brave as you are, Jake Houck, even if he ain't a bully," the bride flamed.

"So?" Houck moved a step or two toward Dillon.

The hand under the coat shook as though the boy had a chill.

"What you got there—in yore hand?" demanded Houck.

The revolver came to light.

Houck stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, straddled out his feet, and laughed derisively. "Allowin' for to kill me, eh?"

"No, sir." The voice was a dry whisper. "I'd like to talk this over reasonable, Mr. Houck, an' fix it up so's bygones would be bygones. I ain't lookin' for trouble."

"I sure believe that." Houck turned to June. "It wouldn't be safe for me to leave you with this desperate character who goes around with a six-shooter not lookin' for trouble. I'm aimin' to take you with me, like I said."

Her eyes clashed with his and gave way at last. "You always act like you're God Almighty," she cried passionately. "Are you hard o' hearing? I'm married to Bob Dillon here."

"I ain't heard him raise any objections to yore goin'," Houck taunted. "Tolliver said for me to bring you, an' I'll do it."

June spoke to Bob, her voice trembling. "Tell him where to get off at," she begged.

"Mr. Houck, June's my wife. She's made her choice. That ends it," Bob said unsteadily.

The cold, cruel eyes of the ex-rustler gripped those of Dillon and held them. "End it, does it? Listen. If you're any kind of a man a-tall you'd better shoot me right now. I'm gonna take her from you, an' you're goin' to tell her to go with me. Understand?"

"He'll not tell me any such a thing," June protested. But her heart sank. She was not sure whether her husband would grovel. If he did—if he did—

The jeering voice went on taunting its victim. "If I was you I'd use that gun or I'd crawl into a hole. Ain't you got any spunk a-tall? I'm tellin' you that June's goin' with me instead o' you, an' that you're goin' to tell her to go. Tha's the kind of a man she married."

"No, Mr. Houck, I don't reckon—"

Houck moved forward, evenly, without haste, eyes cold as chilled steel and as unyielding. "Gimme that gun, if you ain't goin' to use it." He held out a hand.

"Don't, Bob," begged June, in a panic of dismay.

While his heart fluttered with apprehension Bob told himself, over and over, that he would not hand the revolver to Houck. He was still saying it when his right arm began to move slowly forward. The weapon passed from one to the other.

June gave a sobbing sound of shame and despair. She felt like a swimmer in a swift current when the deep waters are closing over his head.

"Now tell her you ain't good enough for her, that you've got no sand in yore craw, and she's to go with me," ordered Houck.

"No." Young Dillon's voice came dry from a throat like cotton.

The big man caught Bob's wrist and slowly twisted. The boy gave an agonized howl of pain. June was white to the lips, but she made no attempt to interfere. It was too late. Bob must show the stuff that was in him. He must go through to a fighting finish or he must prove himself a weakling.

"If you give her up now, you're a yellow dog, Dillon," his tormentor sneered. "Stick it out. Tell me to go to red-hot blazes."

He took an extra turn on the wrist. Bob writhed and shrieked. Tiny beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. "You're killin' me!" he screamed.

"Wish you'd gunned me when you had a chance, don't you?" Houck spat at him. "Too late now. Well, what's it to be?" Again he applied the torture.

The boy begged, pleaded, then surrendered. "I can't stand it! I'll do anything you say."

"Well, you know yore li'l' piece. Speak it right up," ordered the cattleman.

Bob said it, with his eyes on the ground, feeling and looking like a whipped cur. "You better go with him, June. I—I'm no good." A sob choked him. He buried his face in his hands.

Houck laughed harshly. "You hear him, June."

In a small dead voice June asked a question. "Do you mean that, Bob—that I'm to go with him—that you give me up?"

Her husband nodded, without looking up.

No man can sacrifice his mate to save his own hide and still hold her respect. June looked at him in a nausea of sick scorn. She turned from him, wasting no more words.

She and Houck vanished into the gathering darkness.



CHAPTER X

IN THE IMAGE OF GOD

Houck's jeering laugh of triumph came back to the humiliated boy. He noticed for the first time that two or three men were watching him from the door of the saloon. Ashamed to the depths of his being, he hung his head dejectedly. All his life he would be a marked figure because Jake had stamped the manhood out of him, had walked off with his bride of an hour.

In the country of the open spaces a man must have sand. Courage is the basis upon which the other virtues are built, the fundamental upon which he is most searchingly judged. Let a man tell the truth, stick to his pal, and fight when trouble is forced on him, and he will do to ride the river with, in the phrase of the plains.

Bob had lost June. She would, of course, never look at him again. To have failed her so miserably cut deep into his pride and self-respect. With her he had lost, too, the esteem of all those who lived within a radius of fifty miles. For the story would go out to every ranch and cow-camp. Worst of all he had blown out the dynamic spark within himself that is the source of life and hope.

He did not deceive himself. Houck had said he was going to take June to her father. But he had said it with a cynical sneer on his lips. For the girl to be Jake's wife would have been bad enough, but to be his victim without the protection of legality would be infinitely worse. And that was the lot to which June was destined. She had fought, but she could fight no longer.

Fate had played her a scurvy trick in the man she had chosen. Another husband—Dud Hollister, for instance—would have battled it out for her to a finish, till he had been beaten so badly he could no longer crawl to his feet. If Bob had done that, even though he had been hopelessly overmatched, he would have broken Houck's power over June. All the wild, brave spirit of her would have gone out to her husband in a rush of feeling. The battle would have been won for them both. The thing that had stung her pride and crushed her spirit was that he had not struck a blow for her. His cowardice had driven her to Jake Houck's arms because there was no other place for her to go.

Their adventure had ended in tragedy both for her and for him. Bob sank down on a dry-goods box and put his twitching face in his hands. He had flung away both his own chance for happiness and hers. So far as he was concerned he was done for. He could never live down the horrible thing he had done.

He had been rather a frail youth, with very little confidence in himself. Above all else he had always admired strength and courage, the qualities in which he was most lacking. He had lived on the defensive, oppressed by a subconscious sense of inferiority. His actions had been conditioned by fear. Life at the charitable institution where he had been sent as a small child fostered this depression of the ego and its subjection to external circumstances. The manager of the home ruled by the rod. Bob had always lived in a sick dread of it. Only within the past few months had he begun to come into his own, a heritage of health and happiness.

Dud Hollister came to him out of Dolan's saloon. "Say, fellow, where's my gun?" he asked.

Bob looked up. "He—took it."

"Do I lose my six-shooter?"

"I'll fix it with you when I get the money to buy one."

The boy looked so haggard, his face so filled with despair, that Dud was touched in spite of himself.

"Why in Mexico didn't you give that bird a pill outa the gun?" he asked.

"I don't know. I'm—no good," Bob wailed.

"You said it right that time. I'll be doggoned if I ever saw such a thing as a fellow lettin' another guy walk off with his wife—when he ain't been married hardly two hours yet. Say, what's the matter with you anyhow? Why didn't you take a fall outa him? All he could 'a' done was beat you to death."

"He hurt me," Bob confessed miserably. "I—was afraid."

"Hurt you? Great jumpin' Jupiter. Say, fellows, listen to Miss—Miss Roberta here. He hurt him, so he quit on the job—this guy here did. I never heard the beat o' that."

"If you'll borrow one of yore friends' guns an' blow my brains out you'll do me a favor," the harried youth told Hollister in a low voice.

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